Blog Cabin 2011: Homebuilding in Mathews County

Homebuilding in Mathews County, the location of Blog Cabin 2011, tells a story of shipbuilding, shipwrights-turned-homebuilders, locally sourced materials and changes in construction methods precipitated by the Industrial Revolution.

By: Lori Dolnick

©Inn at Tabbs Creek. Photo courtesy Lori Dusenberry

©Tompkins Cabin. Photo courtesy Sara E. Lewis

©Little Celey. Photo courtesy A2RCI

Plentiful Resource: Live Oak

During a period that extended from the American Revolution through the onset of the Civil War, shipbuilding served as Mathews County’s leading industry. "Live oak was an important boat building wood that grew in this area,” says Mathews Maritime Museum docent Dennis Crawford. “It is very durable wood and grows in shapes needed for boat building.” In Mathews, the species was harvested to near extinction for both boat and homebuilding. Dr. Michael Swiderski, a Mathews boat builder and owner of Storybook Woodworks, indicates that the remains of barns and ships (mainly red oak timbers) were also used in home construction.

The Shipwright-Turned-Homebuilder: The Inn at Tabbs Creek

Shipbuilders played a crucial role in Mathews’ early homebuilding history. Ship building techniques, including mortise and tenon joinery, were utilized in the construction of circa-1800s structures. The Inn at Tabbs Creek, built in the late 1890s by schooner builder William Robert Billups, stands as a testament to local shipbuilders’ carpentry skills. “The joints were so tight, I could not get a razor knife into them,” says Michael, who recently completed renovations at the inn.

Architectural Style Echoes Boat Design

Sara E. Lewis, author of Mathews County, Virginia recalls, “My great-grandfather Charles Leonard Lewis was a Mathews boat builder. He and my other great-grandfather Alpheous Lee Forrest, a carpenter, built my grandparents’ home in the Hudgins area of Mathews. The roof and second story of the small house mimic an upside-down boat. These men were part of a culture that moved easily from the water to the land. It was hard to draw the line between boat builders, watermen, carpenters and farmers in that day and age.”

Changing the Face of Homebuilding: The Industrial Revolution

As the 20th century neared, a number of forces impacted homebuilding in the Mathews area. Industrialization and rail transportation facilitated the delivery of sawmill lumber. Carl Lounsbury, senior architectural historian at Colonial Williamsburg, explains: “Rails transported wood faster. That really marked the revolution in building — the cheapness of transportation and transition away from locally produced materials.” On the eve of Blog Cabin’s construction and as the supply of local hand-hewn live oak dwindled, homebuilders shifted to other, more accessible, wood types milled out of state.

Nails: From Forged to Machine-Made

In Colonial America, nails were forged by hand. “Blacksmiths rolled out bar iron, cut nails and attached heads by hand,” Carl explains. “Beginning in the 19th century, machines could roll out flats of iron. In the late 1800s, you begin to see round wire nails like we use today.” The availability of machine-made nails reduced dependence on joiners’ fine woodworking and homebuilding skills and decreased the time necessary to build a home.

The Advent of Balloon Framing

Labor-intensive post-and-beam home construction gave way to a new homebuilding method in the 1830s. “Balloon framing appears about the mid 19th century as a method of quickly putting up a building without skilled carpentry,” says Carl. In balloon framing, long vertical studs extend uninterrupted from the foundation to the roof; nails rather than joinery secure pieces. Despite critics who claimed such structures would blow away in a light wind, balloon-framed homes, including Blog Cabin 2011, have proven their strength and endurance.

Restoring a Balloon-Framed Home

A2RCI, the architectural firm leading the restoration of Blog Cabin 2011, has refurbished several coastal, balloon-framed residences constructed prior to the 1930s. Little Celey, one such property saved from the wrecking ball, hints at Blog Cabin’s exterior design, post remodel. According to Gregory Brezinski, owner of A2RCI Architects, platform framing replaced balloon framing during the 1950s as long, continuous wall studs became more costly and difficult to find.

Before Renovation: The Bones of Blog Cabin

A fine example of balloon framing, Blog Cabin 2011 has survived battering by coastal storms and subdivision by its previous owners. "Overall the house is in great shape for its age," says Blog Cabin 2011 construction project manager Dylan Eastman. "The areas needing the most attention are the girder below (termite damaged), the sagging first floor (from settlement) and the window frames (due to water intrusion)."